Poverty & Wealth

The Urban Poor Shall Inherit Poverty

Sociologist Patrick Sharkey proves a mother’s insecure upbringing harms her child as surely as a neighbor’s broken window.   

A n apparent conundrum bedevils our understanding of African American students’ inadequate school performance: Blacks from low-income families have worse academic outcomes—test scores and graduation rates, for example—than similarly low-income whites. To some, this suggests that socioeconomic disadvantage cannot cause black student failure; instead, poorly motivated and trained teachers must be to blame for failing to elicit achievement from blacks as they do from whites. This was the theory motivating the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. That flawed conclusion overlooks the fact that low-income blacks differ considerably from low-income whites in their social-class backgrounds. Conventional analyses consider students similarly disadvantaged when their families have incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line, making them eligible for lunch subsidies. Yet zero to 185 percent of poverty is a big span; it...

Dan Cantor's Machine

Timothy Devine
Timothy Devine E lection night, New York City, November 5, 2013. Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, the candidate for both the Democratic and Working Families parties, is racking up a huge victory after running on a platform that calls for raising taxes on the rich and raising wages for workers. Shunning the usual Manhattan-hotel bash, de Blasio has decided to celebrate in a Brooklyn armory, where his supporters have gathered to mark the end of the Michael Bloomberg era and, they hope, the birth of a national movement for a more egalitarian economy. In one corner of the packed armory, Dan Cantor is talking with old friends and young activists who either work for him or used to—two groups that, combined, probably include about half the people in the hall. Cantor, who is 58 years old and of medium height, is wearing a black suit and tie but exhibits a touch of the willful schlumpiness that comes naturally to certain New York Jewish males. His most prominent features are a white streak...

The Year in Preview: Labor's Outlook

AP Images/PAUL BEATY
L abor—unions and the broad working class of wage workers—hasn’t had a good year in a very long time. Union membership continues its long, slow decline, as does median family income. But if nothing else, 2014 should be a clarifying year in the life of several legal and organizing struggles that will either advance or retard the progress of labor. The Cold Hard Numbers The labor year begins in early January when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its union-membership numbers. Despite recent high-profile fights over public-sector unionism—teachers and government workers—union density among public employees has stayed remarkably steady, somewhere around 35-36 percent of the public-sector workforce. Private-sector unionism (the iconographic male union members of yore—autoworkers, steelworkers, truckers, coal miners) continues, year by year, to creep lower and lower—last year, density stood at 6.6 percent, probably the lowest since the beginning of the 20 th century. The members of...

The Year in Preview: Paul Ryan's Misguided Poverty Plan

N ext year will mark the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, launched by President Lyndon Johnson. But don’t expect a golden anniversary party for the tired, poor, huddled masses. Johnson’s initiatives passed beginning in 1964 and throughout his second term, and were aimed at the communities left out of policies that had created the widespread prosperity enjoyed by most Americans after the Great Depression—especially the rural poor and African Americans. It wasn’t long, however, before those programs came under attack. The next president, Richard Nixon, used resentment over expanded rights and anti-poverty legislation to wrench the votes of Southern whites away from the Democrats: Ronald Reagan began dismantling these programs in the 1980s. Since then the country has concerned itself more with policies that help businesses grow than with the plight of the least well off. It’s part of the reason we suffered through the Great Recession, and why poverty remains stuck at 15 percent...

The Vindictiveness of the Vitter Amendment

W ith poverty stuck at a decades-high rate of 15 percent, food stamps have proven to be one of the best ways to stop low-income Americans from slipping deeper into poverty. So it’s under attack, of course. Last week, majority leader John Boehner warned that a deal on the farm bill, through which the food-stamp program is authorized and funded, was not coming together. The House and Senate have passed dramatically different bills and now leaders in both chambers are scrambling to come up with a compromise bill that can pass both chambers and be signed by the president before the current legislation expires at the end of this year. With the House scheduled to adjourn this Friday, time is running out. The biggest fight is over how crop subsidies are calculated and which crops they go to, but there is also disagreement on cutting food stamps. The question isn’t whether food stamps will be cut, but by how much. Food stamps are an entitlement, which means the program grows according to need...

On Inequality, Obama's Words Aren't Enough

President Obama speaking Wednesday on inequality.
There are times, like the speech Barack Obama gave yesterday on economic inequality, when he reminds liberals of what we found so appealing about him. The address can stand among the most progressive statements of his presidency. Not for the first time, Obama declared inequality "the defining challenge of our time," and articulated an eloquent case, based in American history and values, for the damage it does and why we need to confront it. So why was I left feeling less than enthusiastic? Because over the last five years, Obama has succeeded in doing so little to address the problem. "Making sure our economy works for every American," he said, is "why I ran for president. It was the center of last year's campaign. It drives everything I do in this office." If that's true, then his presidency hasn't been particularly successful. Now granted, it's not as though he hasn't been awfully busy. And he still has some notable achievements in this area, none greater than the Affordable Care...

Reversing Broward County's School-to-Prison Pipeline

AP Images/Phil Sears
AP Images/Phil Sears W hen, after a nationwide search, he was hired two years ago to serve as superintendent of Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, Robert Runcie began brainstorming ways to close the racial achievement gap. At the time, black students in the sixth-largest district in the country had a graduation rate of only 61 percent compared to 81 percent for white students. To find out why, Runcie, who once headed a management-consulting firm, went to the data. “One of the first things I saw was a huge differential in minority students, black male students in particular, in terms of suspensions and arrests,” he says. Black students made up two-thirds of all suspensions during the 2011-2012 school year despite comprising only 40 percent of the student body. And while there were 15,000 serious incidents like assaults and drug possession reported that year, 85 percent of all 82,000 suspensions were for minor incidents—use of profanity, disruptions of class—and 71 percent of all...

The People's Court?

If you want to see where the problems of unaffordable housing and low wages and poor education play out every day, go to Detroit's 36th District Court. 

Associated Press
*/ Associated Press Detroit's 36th District Court T he first time I went to Detroit’s 36th District Court, I didn’t know the drill. Most people don’t know the drill the first time they go. A lawyer I’d met agreed to accompany me. He went in the side door, reserved for attorneys and court staff. I joined the long line at the main entrance, waiting to pass through the metal detectors and have my bag scanned. No cell phones, the guard told me. Put it in your car. I waved the lawyer back outside. He was due in court, and his car was blocks away. Give me the phone, he said. I’ll bring it in. I returned to the line. You can’t bring in that hair clip, the guard told me. Just throw it out, I said. I scooped my bag off the belt and joined the lawyer, who was standing where the entryway carpet meets the linoleum, near a line of people snaking through a rope maze, waiting to pay tickets. I was intimidated and upset, and I’d been at the 36th less than five minutes. The lawyer and I rode the...

Krugman Boots One

Paul Krugman has played an indispensable role challenging the conventional wisdom during the financial crisis and the slump that followed. He has been proven right again and again in his brilliant debunking of austerity as the cure for recession. Therefore, it was astonishing to read a rare, truly wrongheaded Krugman column in Monday’s New York Times . The offending column is titled “ A Permanent Slump? ” In it, Krugman proposes that something fundamental—something structural—has changed in the economy so that the new normal is what economists call “secular stagnation,” or as Krugman puts it, “a persistent state in which a depressed economy is the norm, with episodes of full employment few and far between.” As I read through the column, I kept waiting for the pivot. Surely Krugman was setting up this claim as a straw man, the better to demolish it. But, no. Krugman evidently buys this view. Even worse, the expert whose research he cites in defense of this thesis is one Lawrence...

Poor, with Savings

B eing poor is expensive. A winter heating bill that comes due before the paycheck arrives can compel a trip to a payday lender who charges 350 percent interest. It takes the entire paycheck to pay off that loan in a week—emptying out the bank account and requiring yet another visit to the lender. A child who is too sick to go to school for a week may need her single father to stay home with her, costing him a quarter of his monthly income. He’s overdue on the rent and the bills, so he’s responsible for late fees as well. Even a few hundred dollars in a savings account could help low-income families weather such predictable but unavoidable crises—provided they have extra money to save. Their budgets are tight, and saving makes sense only if they’re not sacrificing food or child care in order to put money aside. Anti-poverty advocates have long known there could be a relatively cheap, simple way to help people avoid such trade-offs if the government structured savings plans tailored to...

The Democrats' Original Food-Stamp Sin

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
“Today, 47 million Americans struggling to put food on the table will have to make do with less,” began the emailed press release from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office. The statement lamented the $5 billion cut to food-stamp benefits that took effect November 1, rolling back a 13.6 percent expansion to the program that was part of the 2009 stimulus package. The cuts leave “participants with just $1.40 to spend per meal,” the press release continued, adding that House Republicans want to subject food stamps to more cuts in the future. But before Democrats completely rewrite the history of this body blow to the poor, a review of the facts would be in order. The seeds of this current food-stamp cut were sown by multiple deals made when Democrats held both chambers of Congress and the White House. They used money from the food-stamp program to pay for other priorities like education, health care and the school lunch program, all the while assuring that they would eventually...

The Hidden Indentured Class

Sex trafficking isn't our only problem—forced labor accounts for a significant number of the estimated 20,000 victims of human trafficking who enter the U.S. each year.

 

AP Images/New Mexico Attorney General's Office
AP Images/New Mexico Attorney General's Office A nna and her husband were supposed to be in the U.S. on their honeymoon. They arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in the spring of 2007 and found Daniel waiting for them with a sign bearing their names. Daniel was an acquaintance, someone Anna’s father-in-law—who lived in Houston—knew through church. He had offered to show them parts of Southern California before they continued on to Texas. It was an attractive detour for a Southeast Asian couple in the U.S. for the first time. From the airport, they drove to a restaurant for dinner and met some of Daniel’s family—a stop that felt warm and welcoming since they were all from the same country originally. “He was really nice and since we don’t know anybody—and we came from the same country,” Anna recalls, “that’s why we trusted to go with him.” But then, instead of playing tour guide, Daniel brought the couple to an elder-care facility he owned. He told them to work, care and cook...

When Kids Stand Their Ground

AP Photo/Mike Brown
AP Photo/Phil Sears O n September 20, 21-year-old Bryon Champ was shot at by rival gang members, who grazed his leg with a bullet. That night, Champ and three allies allegedly went to the other gang’s neighborhood and opened fire on a crowd with an assault rifle, wounding 13 people, including a 3-year-old boy. They have been charged with multiple counts of attempted murder. Our nation's libertarian approach to guns has exacted a terrible toll on young people. The U.S. firearms homicide rate is 20 times that of other industrialized countries. But for those ages 15 to 24, it’s an off-the-charts 43 times higher . And until this year, a 17-year congressional ban on federally funded firearms research wrecked efforts to systematically understand the links between state gun laws and gun casualties. (The Obama administration lifted the ban in January.) Violence and easy access to guns have especially created a lethal witches’ brew in poor neighborhoods. Crime experts agree on the need for...

Big Bank Punishments Don't Fit Their Crimes

AP Images/Richard Drew
With the Justice Department desperate to rehabilitate its image as a diligent prosecutor of financial fraud, securing headlines along the lines of “the largest fine against a single company in history” is a lifeline. In a tentative deal , the Department would force JPMorgan Chase to pay a $9 billion fine and commit $4 billion to mortgage relief, to settle multiple investigations into their mortgage-backed securities business. The bank stands accused of knowingly selling investors mortgage bonds backed by loans that didn’t meet quality control standards outlined in its investment materials. JPMorgan Chase wants to “pay for peace” in this deal, ending all civil litigation around mortgage-backed securities by state and federal law enforcement, though at least one criminal case would remain open. But for the Justice Department to truly start fresh, and fulfill their mission of stopping corporate fraud and preventing it from occurring again, they will have to compel JPMorgan to admit full...

Tom Friedman’s Worst Column Ever

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Sometimes, Tom Friedman writes a column that is such complete baloney it makes you want to retch. Rather than risking soiling my shoes, here is a point-by-point rebuttal to Friedman’s opus du jour, titled: “ Sorry, Kids. We Ate It All .” Friedman’s column swallows whole the budgetary malarkey of the corporate Fix-the-Debt lobby and its Wall Street sponsors. Namely, the reduced horizons of the next generation are the result of the gluttony of old folks—and of unions. But what makes this piece especially appalling (and emblematic) is that the hero of Friedman’s piece is one Stanley Druckenmiller, a hedge-fund billionaire who has appointed himself as the Paul Revere of deficit reduction to warn America’s college students that The Seniors Are Coming. In passing, Friedman discloses that Druckenmiller is also “a friend.” So on top of the absurd logic of the piece, Friedman is guilty of a conflict of interest—using the most valuable real estate in American journalism to do a favor for a chum...

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